All images by Jean-Philippe Woodland
Don’t run before you can walk.
That’s the advice that the two girls from Cooperative Designs would give to anyone who is starting a fashion label. After meeting at Central St Martins, Annalisa Dunn and Dorothee Hagemann decided to start their own knitwear label in 2007. They have collaborated with pioneering fashion designers such as Hussein Chalayan. The German-English design duo have an intelligent and unique aesthetic, referencing Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism in its graphic appearance. These objects of desire are modern, extremely wearable and, as should be the rule for knitwear, comfortable. Lilli Heinemann interviews Cooperative Designs for Volt Cafe.
VOLT CAFE: Can you tell me about the idea behind Cooperative Designs, how everything began and what your vision was when you decided to start the label?
Dorothee: It all began while doing an MA at Central St. Martins. That’s where we met and we got on really well. After graduation, Annalisa and I went to an exhibition together and there she convinced me to start the label and one thing led to another…
Annalisa: It’s much more fairy-tale than that. I was trying to persuade her for ages but she’d worked in the industry and had seen how awful it could be, so she really didn’t want to do it. I took her to see the Gilbert & George exhibition at the Tate Modern. We just walked around the entire show, seeing how great a partnership could be and by the time we left, we’d somehow agreed that we’d do it. And then, as we came out of the building, it started snowing even though it was May and we just knew: We are in it for the ride.
VOLT CAFE: Why did you decide to go for knitwear?
Annalisa: It’s useful to have a specialisation in the market, it makes it easier for you to have something unique, something that no one else can do and at the moment there is so much interest in knitwear. The boundaries have really been pushed.
VOLT CAFE: How easy or difficult were the first steps? What obstacles did you encounter on your way to develop Cooperative Designs?
Dorothee: I have to say that the support in London is really great for young designers compared to cities like Berlin. London is a fantastic place for emerging designers. But there are lots of problems. Just finding the right factories to deal with your requests and being able to produce collections in small quantities that are still high quality and for a good price. Then you have to find your customers…
Annalisa: Learning who your customer is, that is difficult. Especially when you are a student, trying to be creative and to do things that are exciting. You try to imagine who your customer is, but you don’t really know.
Dorothee: I remember when we first did our business plan and we thought about who would be our competitors. But after a while you discover who your competitors really are and where your position is in the market. If you do really intensive market research initially, you probably get an idea, but I think you can only learn it by doing it.
VOLT CAFE: How did you finance your label in the beginning?
Dorothee: We kind of put our pocket money in! We put in a little bit, just buying a couple of hundred pounds worth of yarn initially. I remember for the first collection I bought jersey fabrics from the market in Kreuzberg in Berlin, where you get a metre of fabric for an Euro or so.
Annalisa: Each season we just grow a little more, it has been a very organic way to do it. In a way we were lucky to start during the recession, because that meant we had to progress very slowly and be realistic about our abilities. We haven’t got into a loads of debt and we haven’t taken on employees that we can’t afford.
Dorothee: And we got very exciting jobs right from the beginning. We did some consultanting for Hussein Chalayan and Henry Bendel, then Stefanel. We also did something for the menswear label SOAR. All that helped tremendously, that people took notice.
VOLT CAFE: What are your goals with Cooperative Designs? Where do you see yourselves in the future, what is your vision?
Dorothee: Someone called us the ‘Missoni of London’ which sounds really nice!
Annalisa: I think providing an alternative to Italian knitwear is kind of what we do. It’s traditional yet also modern and quirky. We want it to be high quality and beautiful, something that’s made with love. We’d really like to have our own shop and it would be lovely to have the designs of the people we work with in the shop as well. Another goal is increasing our international sales.
VOLT CAFE: Did you ever have doubts about going into business for yourself?
Annalisa: You don’t know how hard it is, so you just do it. After a year, we both had to sit down and work out if this was going to be a career or if we just had a really expensive hobby! That made us realise things were going places which enabled us to stop fretting about it.
VOLT CAFE: Do you develop your designs as you go along or do you have a clear vision before you start drawing?
Annalisa: Because we do knitwear we have to prepare a lot in advance. So when we do the sketches we have to work out exactly what the materials are, what quantities we will need and which factories will produce them. With the factory pieces we have to know exactly what we are going to do although sometimes when the factory pieces come back, we might have to change them.
VOLT CAFE: How did the collaboration with Hussein Chalayan happen? And how was it to work with such a conceptual fashion icon?
Annalisa: Initially it came about via his stylist, Jodie Barnes, who knew about my work from St Martins. They called us and actually we were so busy, that I turned them down. But then I was going to give them a number for another knitter and I obviously didn’t want to do that, so we did the work after all. And of course it was definitely worth doing. We started a very close consulting relationship with Hussein and his team.
Dorothee: For the second collaboration, I had to fly out the Gucci headquarters in Milan for a fitting, which was quite exciting. We had a tremendous amount of freedom. They hadn’t designed everything yet and just asked us to do things.
VOLT CAFE: Any other labels you’d like to do a collaboration with?
Annalisa: I’d love to do a collaboration with a UK knitwear brand, someone like John Smedley. We are continuing to work with Stefanel which is fantastic.
VOLT CAFE: Dorothee, you are German and studied in Berlin for five years. Do you think there would be a difference in your designs if you had started your label in Berlin instead of London? What in your opinion is the greatest difference between these two places fashionwise?
Dorothee: I think people don’t dress up as much in Berlin. If you take my MA collection, it looked a lot more German than what we do now or what Annalisa used to do.
Annalisa: I think that because you come from a different background that has influenced your designs. What we do isn’t really that London and it isn’t really German either.
For more information about the label and where you can buy their beautiful knitwear please go to www.cooperative-designs.com.